In a strange case of he said, she said, the Russian military claimed that it fired warning shots at the British destroyer HMS Defender on June 23. In addition to firing warning shots at the British naval vessel, Moscow said that an Su-24 aircraft dropped four bombs in the HMS Defender’s path in an effort to force it to change course.
Britain’s Defense Ministry, however, denied that its ship had been fired upon. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said “no shots were fired.” Meanwhile, George Eustice, a member of the British Cabinet, said in a televised interview on June 24 that the Russin navy was conducting a military drill, suggesting that the Russian navy did fire, but not at the British vessel.
“What was actually going on is the Russians were doing a gunnery exercise, they had given prior notice of that, they often do in that area,” Mr. Eustice said.
Whether or not shots were actually fired, the response by London to the situation was telling. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on June 24 that his country does not recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and, therefore, the HMS Defender had every right to sail from Ukraine to Georgia.
“It was illegal,” Mr. Johnson said a day after the incident. “These are Ukrainian waters, and it was entirely right to use them to go from A to B.”
The HMS Defender was “conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters,” said Mr. Raab. “We were doing so in accordance with international law and the Russian characterization is predictably inaccurate.”
Predictably inaccurate is one way to put it. Predictably farcical and detached from reality is more like it.
Russian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Ryabkov said his country would use “all means” to defend what he claimed were Russia’s borders – borders that to this day the international community does not recognize. But he also added to the tension over the issue by noting that Russia would “appeal to reason and demand to respect international law. If it doesn’t help, we may drop bombs and not just in the path but right on target, if colleagues don’t get it otherwise.”
Mr. Eustice said that he fully expects the Royal Navy to sail the same course again, as the waters in question do not belong to Russia. “We never accepted the annexation of Crimea, these were Ukrainian territorial waters,” he said. Time will tell who’s bluffing, but Britain is willing to stand up to Russian threats over Ukrainian territorial waters by potentially putting their sailors in harm’s way. That itself is telling.